The sailors in Lannier’s party preceded her, and Winston and his acceleration chair, still laying cable, trailed by a few meters. Ahead was the fire—an eye-hurting white glow, the metal sagging toward its center. Warspite‘s guns fired, right then, and the shock nearly lifted Winston off his feet. The burning bulkhead shifted before his eyes. Lannier pointed and shouted, but she’d switched to a private circuit, and Winston couldn’t hear her. Her crew had handheld extinguishers, spraying their retardant compound over the radiant fire and making slow progress.
Warspite‘s guns cracked again, this time sending Winston to the deck, and immediately after the deck shook again in a subtly different way. Winston pushed upward as though through thick gauze, and became aware of a growing heat around him. He sat up into an inferno. Reprisal had scored another hit, and the shell’s incendiary payload had spattered over an arc not five meters in front of him. Lannier’s crew had taken the worst of it, and Winston knew they were dead. No suit could save its wearer from burns like that.
Lannier was nearer Winston, though, and she twitched. Her legs, badly burned already, rested on the edge of the worst of the hit, and Winston hastened to drag her away before the decking could rekindle. He put his helmet to hers and shouted, “Lieutenant!”
Lannier stirred, but didn’t respond. A moment passed before Winston’s training returned to him, and then he hauled the stricken sublieutenant into his chair. Winston checked the damage control report on the arm screen, deciding on the safest—
He frowned at the display, glanced over his shoulder, and decided. The chair didn’t need his help to get Lannier back to a corridor where someone would be able to get her to the surgeon. He sent the chair and the sublieutenant on their way, snatched a fire extinguisher from one of the dead crew—he tried not to dwell on that—and charged through the fire.
He emerged on the far side largely unharmed, to his great surprise. His boots were in mid-melt, and he suspected he’d be spending the next few weeks in the constant company of blisters. His goal was more important, though. Down the corridor to his right, the blast door to the Number One magazine stood open. All that protected the propellant charges and high-explosive shells within was the compartment’s everyday hatch. The control panel hung from its wires.
There was only one thing to do. He wouldn’t be able to lock the blast door from the outside, so he tossed his extinguisher into the magazine, followed it through, and leaned back as he hauled the blast door shut, then spun the lock until it clanked home. He turned to survey the magazine. Shell and propellant caddies sat half-filled on the hoist rails. Beyond them, one of the bulkheads bowed in, and eight or ten prone forms littered the compartment. The concussion from a shell hit must have got them, Winston thought grimly. It was only then that he noticed the source of the light in the room, a hard-edged glow from the armored bulkheads around him. The whole bow had to be in flames, and if the bulkheads had caught, he had a matter of seconds to think of something. He lifted his extinguisher, intending to buy himself time enough to conceive of a way to lock the blast door closed without trapping himself inside, then noticed the pressure needle deep in the red. The nozzle gave a halfhearted puff, and Winston tossed the whole worthless assembly aside. Now there was truly only one thing left to do. He triggered the emergency turret evacuation alarms, strode to the center of the compartment, and waited.
Warspite had four magazines. Number Four fed her missile tubes, and One, Two, and Three each fed a pair of turrets. Each magazine was isolated from the ship’s other vital spaces by the heaviest bulkheads in her. With all the blast doors closed, the odds were better than even that a magazine explosion wouldn’t tear the ship in two.
As Warspite‘s Number One magazine yielded to the fires battering it from all angles, the whole of Warspite‘s starboard side could be seen to bulge, and then nearly a third of it blossomed in orange and white. Debris shot from the explosion, and Warspite took on a gentle lengthwise spin, her engines dying.
It took Reprisal some minutes to go about and bear down on Warspite; Hermes‘ long-range bombardment was clearly beginning to tell, but it was equally clear that the valiant frigate could hardly hope to cripple Reprisal before she fell upon Warspite to deliver the killing blow. Reprisal fired ineffectually at Hermes until she’d closed to within ten kilometers of Warspite, then smartly came to off Warspite‘s after quarter.
It was then that Weatherby played his final card. Warspite was not as dead as she looked— her engines relit, and she turned broadside-on to Reprisal, rolling to display her nearly-undamaged port side.
As a fleet point-defense ship, Warspite mounted her masers and anti-missile autocannon in batteries along her flanks, to cover as many simultaneous angles of attack as possible. Besides that advantage, her armament arrangement conferred upon her another: if she endeavored to present only one side to enemy fire, she could hold in reserve an unexpected short-range punch. Dozens of Warspite‘s quick-firing small-caliber guns and dozens of her masers opened fire as they came to bear. The relentless rapid fire of the former shattered Reprisal‘s portside radiators, and the latter, nearly unaffected by beam spread at this range, lanced into Reprisal‘s hull. Reprisal answered with a panicked volley, ill-aimed and ill-coordinated, at the same time that another round from Hermes‘ centerline kinetic blew through her.
On Reprisal‘s combat bridge, the thermometers were inching into the sixties. It would be worse elsewhere in the ship, and she was facing one enemy nearly untouched and another with more fight left than she had any reasonable claim to. Reprisal‘s captain made a decision. One of his young officers carried a sealed packet through the sweltering corridors to the auxiliary radio room. A lieutenant there read the packet’s contents and flipped a switch in front of him. A signal carrying Reprisal‘s name and allegiance, transmitted from what was perhaps Reprisal‘s single most durable electrical system, ceased to be. Of all the sailing metaphors used by the Naval Arm’s officers, this one was the most apt: Reprisal had struck her colors.